Here's why we never got to see Gladiator 2

Ah, Hollywood. It's a town where the streets are paved with gold…and dreams die every single day. And we're not just talking about the crushed hopes of naïve young actors. We're talking about anticipated films squashed at the last second. Seriously, where's that Goonies sequel we were promised? And what the heck happened to Inception 2?

But while these films have all struggled (and failed) to claw their way out of development hell, no sequel has endured more setbacks than Gladiator 2. The long-awaited follow-up to one of Ridley Scott's most popular movies, Gladiator 2 has valiantly tried to battle its way into theaters, but every time it rises up, the film is beaten back down. It's time to grab your sword and helmet and finally figure out what happened to this much-anticipated sequel.

Well, Maximus is dead

When Gladiator hit theaters in 2000, the sword-and-sandal epic wowed critics, earning an impressive 76 percent on Rotten Tomatoes based on 186 reviews, and cleaned house at the box office, raking in a princely sum of $457,640,427 worldwide. The movie also fared pretty well during awards season, taking home the Oscar for Best Picture and nabbing the Best Actor prize for Russell Crowe.

In fact, the film turned Crowe into an international superstar, and nearly two decades later, people still shout lines like "Are you not entertained?" at him. Naturally, with such a massive hit on their hands, the folks at DreamWorks desperately wanted to make a sequel. Rumors about the proposed follow-up were already swirling online as early as 2001, just a year after the film's initial release. However, there was one major, Coliseum-sized problem with the idea: Maximus Decimus Meridius, the main character of the movie, was dead.

In the film's climactic moments, the evil Emperor Commodus (played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix) challenges Maximus to a gladiator battle. There's no universe where Joaquin Phoenix beats Russell Crowe in hand-to-hand combat, so Commodus tries to even the odds by secretly stabbing Maximus before tossing him into the arena. For a moment, things look grim for our hero, but Maximus is fueled by revenge and righteous anger. Fighting through the pain, Maximus kills Commodus with the emperor's own weapon before drifting away into the wheat-filled afterlife on the strains of "Now We Are Free."

True, this is an absolutely killer ending for a standalone film. But it certainly makes things tricky if you're interested in a sequel. But hey, Hollywood had gotten around this kind of problem before (we're looking at you, Terminator 2), and soon, the brightest minds in Hollywood were hard at work, trying to figure out a way to resurrect Maximus and bring Gladiator 2 to the silver screen.

Talk of a prequel

These days, prequels are all the rage, and that's largely thanks to one George Lucas. In 1999, the flannel-wearing billionaire revisited the Star Wars universe with The Phantom Menace, a film that made all the money and set the scene for franchise updates like Prometheus, X-Men: First Class, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And initially, it looked like the executives at DreamWorks were all gung-ho about buying a ticket aboard the prequel express. After all, it was a pretty convenient way to bring Maximus to life after he'd bled to death in the middle of the Coliseum.

When people started whispering about a new Gladiator movie in 2001, the word on the web was that the story would take place years before the events of the first film. According to sources like The Guardian, the prequel would focus on Maximus's early days in the Roman military, showing the Spaniard's rise from mere soldier to mighty general. Obviously, you've got to have a love story in there, and rumor had it that the film would feature a romance between Maximus and Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), the daughter of Marcus Aurelius. So much for Maximus's poor wife…

Things started getting more serious when producer Douglas Wick declared talks were underway to get this Roman ball rolling. "We're looking at lots of options," Wick explained. "You don't finally do something like [Gladiator 2] unless you have a dazzling story to tell." The producer also said DreamWorks was considering bringing back Crowe as the actor had "a lot of voltage on screen." Plus, if people are going to pay their hard-earned cash to watch a Gladiator movie, they want to see Russell Crowe decapitating people. That's just common sense, and probably why ABC reported a rumor that Crowe was being offered $20 million to get back in the arena.

Of course, we all know the pen is mightier than the gladiator's sword, so picking a screenwriter was a pretty big deal, and according to Empire, David Franzoni—one of the original Gladiator scribes—was considered to write the script. At first, it looked like Gladiator 2 might get a thumbs up from studio executives…but as we all know, the movie industry is a whole lot like the Roman mob: fickle, impatient, and likely to change its mind at a moment's notice.

Shifting to a sequel

Getting from script to screen is a difficult task, one with a lot of left turns and strange behind-the-scenes decisions, and a movie's original concept almost never makes it through the filmmaking process intact. For example, The Emperor's New Groove was supposed to be an Aztec version of The Prince and the Pauper. The 2010 Robin Hood (also a Scott-Crowe joint) originally had the Sheriff of Nottingham as a misunderstood hero. And sometime between 2001 and 2002, DreamWorks decided to put the brakes on a Gladiator prequel and shift their focus to a sequel.

The first big change involved David Franzoni stepping away from his typewriter and focusing solely on producing. According to 2002 reports, the writing gig then went to John Logan, another one of the original Gladiator penmen. And with a new guy putting words on the page, the story was suddenly set 15 years after the events of the original film. That same year, producer Walter Parkes hinted the film might possibly jump back and forth in time, but it would mainly tell the story of Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark), the royal son of Lucilla. As the producer explained, Lucius was now "the last heir of Marcus Aurelius. Rome has become a fascist state, and we have a prince who needs to find out who was his father."

Who could be Lucius's real dad? Well, according to Scott Wampler of Birth.Movies.Death., the sequel would've followed Lucius as he discovered that his father was—you guessed it—Maximus. And as of 2003, director Ridley Scott seemed very much on board with the whole idea, even boldly (if prematurely) declaring Logan's script was ready to go. However, the sequel was going to be significantly different from the first film when it came to the action scenes. As Scott explained, he wasn't going to "touch gladiators again." Instead, he was more interested in the political than the gladiatorial arena and wanted to focus on "politics and praetorians" instead of blood and guts.

Scott also expected to start filming in 2005, but as 2004 faded into memory, Gladiator 2 was still stuck in the cinematic mud. That same year, actor Djimon Hounsou (who'd played Juba in the first movie) claimed people were still working on part two, but there was a bit of dissension over at DreamWorks. "They're not happy about what they have for now," Honsou said, "so they're still working on it."

In fact, they were working so hard that Gladiator 2 was slowly but surely morphing into the greatest movie never made.

Nick Cave's incredible script

If you've ever heard a Nick Cave song, then you know this Australian artist is basically an old-timey prophet armed with a guitar. His songs are brutal, apocalyptic, and spiritual in an Old Testament sort of way, and you get that same vibe watching the movies he's been involved with over the years. Cave has composed music for films like Hell or High Water and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and he's written scripts for movies such as Lawless and The Proposition. With that kind of cinematic mind, it's not surprising that Russell Crowe saw potential in Cave's fire-and-brimstone brain, or that he asked Cave to write the screenplay for Gladiator 2.

What is surprising is how absolutely insane the script turned out to be.

News of Cave's involvement broke in 2006, and evidently, the songwriter was initially baffled by his assignment. In an interview with Marc Maron, Cave claimed when Crowe approached him with the offer, he asked the actor, "Hey, Russell, didn't you die in Gladiator 1?" According to Cave, Crowe responded, "Yeah, you sort that out." And Cave didn't disappoint, dreaming up a screenplay that would make Alejandro Jodorowsky shake his head in awe.

The project was titled Christ Killer, and with a name like that, you know you're in for something unique. The film opens in the afterlife, with Maximus realizing he's dead. Unfortunately, there's nary a wheat field in sight, and his wife and child are nowhere to be seen. Eventually, the gladiator comes face-to-face with seven dying gods (Jupiter, Apollo, Pluto, Neptune, Mars, Mercury, and Bacchus). The decrepit deities make a deal with Maximus, promising to guide him to his family if he'll kill Hephaestos, an entity who's betrayed the Roman faith and now professes belief in the "one, true God."

While Maximus agrees to do their dirty work, he eventually winds up on Earth, several years in the future. After returning to the real world, he discovers little Lucius has grown up to be a savage soldier, one with a bad habit of violently murdering Christians. At first, Maximus doesn't really care about the plight of the church. He's only interested in finding his resurrected son, Marius. Eventually, Maximus takes a stand with the persecuted Christians, leading an army against the Roman legions, but after his victory, he's cursed to go through time as an immortal, fighting in countless wars and popping up in every conflict from the Crusades to Vietnam.

If you think that sounds insane, we didn't even mention the purgatory scene, the Coliseum filled with alligators, or the finale that takes place inside the Pentagon. Yeah, the one in Washington, D.C. And while you might think this sounds absolutely nuts, Nick Cave described the script as "a stone-cold masterpiece." And you know what? We have to agree.

Christ Killer wasn't going to cut it

As amazing as Nick Cave's sequel could've been, the fabled Christ Killer never got the studio seal of approval—surprise, surprise. Truthfully, the singer wasn't at all shocked by this turn of events, claiming, "I enjoyed writing it because I knew on every level that it was never going to get made." Honestly, the project was too wild for mainstream Hollywood, especially since DreamWorks was still considering a more grounded sequel.

As for Ridley Scott, he seems to have loved Cave's screenplay, saying it "worked very well" as a piece of storytelling, although he knew there was zero chance of it ever getting made. But as for Russell Crowe—who'd commissioned the piece in the first place—things get a bit trickier. Scott claims the actor was enamored with the script, saying Crowe "didn't want to let [Cave's screenplay] go," and that the two tried to get the deal done. Cave offered a very different version of events; according to the singer, his conversation with Crowe went something like this:

"I said, 'What did you think?' 'Don't like it, mate.' 'What about the end?' 'Don't like it, mate.'"

Regardless of Crowe's true feelings about Christ Killer, DreamWorks was never going to greenlight the project. According to Scott, they were still interested in a film "addressing Rome without Maximus" where the hero would be "the son that Maximus had probably left behind with his affair with Lucilla." But if wishes were movies, there'd be a million amazing sequels out there, from Pulp Fiction 2 to Iron Man 4, and without a strong screenplay, Gladiator 2 just faded away into the afterlife.

However, if you need your Gladiator fix, then you can check out Nick Cave's crazy script online. And if you want to see Russell Crowe in action, then you might want to check out the clip above. You see, in February 2015, Crowe appeared on the British TV show The Last Leg and did a little impromptu acting, playing the role of ghost Maximus (who has a surprisingly fun accent and a shockingly foul mouth). Really, it's the closest we'll probably ever get to seeing Crowe reprising his iconic role, in this life or the next.